Prometheus (2012) / Alien: Covenant (2017) / Film of the Week: Alien (1979)

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Ridley Scott directs Michael Fassbender, Noomi Rapace, Charlize Theron, Michael Fassbender, Katherine Waterston, Danny McBride, Sigourney Weaver, Tom Skerritt and Ian Holm in this trilogy of movies following the parallel evolutions of the ultimate killing biohazards and synthetic automatons. 

Spoilers are going to abound here! I want to explore my thoughts and don’t have the patience to tip toe around areas I want to write with clarity about. So if you merely want to know how I feel about the latest Alien movie… Covenant is probably the weakest entry that doesn’t involve a Predator. Lacking even the sloppy juvenile mania of the poor Resurrection. Yet we live in exciting times as we now have three mythology expanding Ridley Scott directed chapters that veer the core story away from the Ripley versus The Bitch dead end loop the franchise found itself in. Let’s look at them in detail.

Surely everyone who knows me well, knows I am an avid Prometheus defendant. I’ll bore you at dinner parties about how unfairly maligned I think it is, if I ever attended dinner parties, but I can’t as I’ll be at home… watching Prometheus again. When I first caught it at the Southbank mega IMAX on the weekend of release, the group of comedians I left with were picking it apart, amplifying their disappointment while I silently trundled off amazed and sated. And five years of many, many late night DVD watches down the line my love of this visually opulent, philosophically robust and rousingly adventurous epic has diminished very little. The IMDB ratings speak for themselves. You’ll struggle to find a nerd messageboard or movie clickbait site that does not present the propaganda that Prometheus is the worst film ever made… yet half a million movie fans have anonymously rated it a solid 7 out of 10 over the last half decade… the vocal haters are clearly an unrepresentative minority with too much influence. Most people silently like, love or respect Prometheus. Already the incongruously better reviewed Covenant is plummeting below a 7 on IMDB and that’s with the faithful first weekenders the only ones rating it so far.  I imagine it will level out at a below average 6.5 by this time next year.

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Prometheus is hard sci-fi, crafted with an artisan’s zeal and unbeholden to its source material in a way that only the product of a key creative behind the 1979 original classic could be. Rather than being a big budget exercise in xenomorph fan-fiction, Prometheus terraforms a new exciting world within the same universe. It has no interest in canon and continuity- it is not looking for for both ends of the bridge to meet perfectly in the middle à la Rogue One and A New Hope or The Thing and The Thing. It has its own Lovecraftian / Chariots of the Gods / The Stone Tapes influenced agenda to follow.

Before I go into brief detail about all that I adore about it I’m happy to address a couple of the key nits people like to pick at it.

One: the scientists do not behave very scientifically.

An unavoidable trope of sci-fi in general that. If there is no giddy hubris, then no breakthrough fantastical or horrific to set the narrative in motion. Scientists need to be unprofessional dicks otherwise we don’t have a film, you utter goons. You can see this shocking but essential lack of health and safety in previous entries of the series (Kane looks entranced into that squirming egg, Ripley constantly and consciously goes back into hunting, nesting and feeding grounds) as well as with fictional scientists in the works of Cronenberg, Wells, Frankenstein, Greek Myth et al. May I even suggest real life research pioneers who died doing unwise things with their experiments like Marie Curie or Michael Faraday? In the genre entertainment movie, the humans go from masters of their domain to toddlers in danger within one foolish open door, one rashly crossed threshold. Look at those beautiful but awkward top heavy bubble helmets. They clumsily bang their heads off each other frequently and look like they’ll topple over at any moment, newborns struggling with their first movements in this brave world. Scott has made them visually ungainly and lacking control. This matches the Engineers’ awkward exosuits, their own failures we witness in the ghostly holographic CCTV replay, something has gone horribly wrong. The message is “You play God or you meet your creator, you risk becoming of inferior and terminally vulnerable.” The only species not to destroy themselves by meddling with their own origins are the xenomorphs themselves. They have no philosophy. They just feed and breed and retaliate. Answering the big questions is the opposite of a survival instinct.

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Two: Why not just move sideways out of the path of that crashing spaceship rather than try to outrun it?

Well Shaw actually does exactly that, while Vickers doesn’t. And maybe there is a point in that. Vickers has lived her life calculating and avoiding risk far, far in advance. So she hasn’t exactly attuned her immediate survival instincts. She lives on a lifepod, which is now jettisoned up ahead, these are pointedly her first (doomed) steps on a hostile planet she has avoided venturing out on. Maybe she is scared shitless to do anything but run. Human, that. And if you watch the sequence again, the path of the impacting craft is quite erratic. I’m not sure a simple sidestep to the left(, Simon!) would cut it. Shaw does roll over… only to see the big “croissant” topple in her direction anyway and almost crush her again. I think this boils down to people not wanting a big action set piece. Why you no want no action set piece, people? What are you? Mike Leigh fans?

As for other “flaws” you want to bring up… fuck off. You don’t deserve cinema.

Now for all that meaty strength. The restrained body horror; sustained in the brilliant self abortion sequence (one of the most thrilling proactive moments of the franchise entire, sold perfectly to us by the committed Rapace) to the cheeky momentary look of disgust on the reanimated head (shades of Ash) before it explodes. Costumes designers, set dressers, model builders and score composers take a massive bow – Prometheus looks and sounds like the most expensive film ever made. Glistening and foreboding, inventive yet practical. Then there’s the intelligent mythology that introduces as many questions as it does answer old mysteries- the bedrock of opening the series out for future entries. We take in issues of creation, parenthood, faith and evolution – you don’t get that in Star Wars. A brilliant cast – Fassbender is chilling, Rapace charming and hardworking, Theron icy and petulant (watch her face when Weyland refers to his robot as the closest thing he has to a son -Oof!), Guy Pearce as a decrepit cameo, Idris Elba as the manly ship’s captain, familar faces Benedict Wong, Kate Dickie, Rafe Spall and Sean Harris beefing out the credits. Cor! You’d give both nuts to watch another film with this bunch, no matter how unlikeable or strangely motivated the characters. And I thought we were all adults here… who says we have to like all our characters? How do you pricks watch Goodfellas or Raging Bull? Genuine question. How?

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So early versions of the chestbuster, the facehugger and the alien itself appear in the form of a foetal squid, a mega squid and  the “deacon” respectively. But the creatures this film is truly about is the Engineers. Everything else is fan service offal. And the Engineers are fascinating. We meet one in the opening sequence, sacrificing his body as a dispersal system for the black goo virus / DNA accelerant? Are they boosting or controlling the evolution of a planet? Seeding themselves into the far outreaches of the universe like long game colonists? Testing a weapon? Either way, the suggestion seems to be we are the end product of this sacrifice. And once we have become advanced enough to discover and understand their primitive starmaps and navigate space they will want to know. Seemingly to destroy us at this military outpost they have baited for us as the destination. Not that they are perfect, those holographic images from the past and their strewn bodies suggest something has gone tits up, the familiar image of the alien on a mural above their black goo store suggest the xenomorph already exists and is a portent for death in their culture too.

One of most provocative moments is when the android David and the dying Weyland wake the preserved Engineer from hypersleep. He observes them at first but then viciously attacks. What has angered him? Their mere presence? Then why the hesitation? Its realisation that David is a human construct and the humans have been playing Engineer? David speaking their language? Mastering it? Or bungling it? Offence? Or dying Weyland showing all his frailty and vulnerability in front of Engineers pale, muscular, smooth perfection? Is he proof the experiment on Earth has failed or has grown wildly out of control? Unanswered questions are not flaws or plot holes. They are the barbs that hook the committed viewer back in, make a experience like Prometheus endlessly rewatchable. Like Scott’s own Blade Runner. And why should we understand the motivations of something so… alien?

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I’m willing to accept Prometheus with its B-Movie plotting and fresher’s first year theorising and reasoning can be off putting to those who merely wanted another face value, gung-ho Aliens. But I think the imagination, assembled craft, naughty shocks, escalating intensity and ambition far outweigh any initial dissatisfaction. Viewed as a companion piece to Ridley Scott’s Alien on its own, it proves a delicious expansion. And Prometheus in its own right it is a pure, compelling, truly cinematic experience. Try it again, please?

I remember the Prometheus teaser being released on Christmas Day and having to hide up in my brother-in-law’s room for half an hour to watch it over and over and over on a smartphone. A prequel to one of the greatest sci-fi movies ever made… from the original director. I was sold – hook, line and sinker. Bouncing in my seat until the summer. That anticipation was noticeably lacking in me during the promotional build up to Covenant. If anything I had started avoiding the lacklustre, uninspired teasers and news stories. I’ve been to see it twice this weekend and both times I’ve left dispirited.

Covenant clearly is a correcting exercise trying to get the vocal Prometheus detractors back on board by delivering a more traditional “Alien” franchise experience. And it is a dog’s dinner for it. What you get is a middle act that tries to to tie off a lot of the open cliffhanger threads of Prometheus as quickly as possible bookended with an uninspired retread of Alien / Aliens / Ressurection. A band of colonists follow a signal, experience body horror, are stalked by the Alien, try to get it off ship when it proves to be hardier than initially expected. The gore levels are ramped up (I liked this), the action passable – but there is nothing as chaotic, inspired or as manic as Prometheus’ highlights.

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And the treatment of the xenomorph itself suffers from a cocktail of cliche and lack of care. It attacks head on and is easily defeated – there’s a sense that away from that middle act, Scott’s heart is no longer in the project as he is having to make a sequel rather than an expansion. In its final moment the alien performs a stunt famously from Fast and Furious 7. You can hear an 80 year old artist sigh “If that’s what the knuckleheads want, let’s just get it over with.”

Of the fan service bookends – all of it works, none of it improves. Waterston is a mere dilution of Ripley, she engages with each scene with either wet eyed doey-ness or sulky determinism. Not entirely sure why she has gained such good notices in reviews – she is no Weaver, nor Rapace. McBride doesn’t stink the room out, the comedy actor actually makes a decent fist of the dependable heroic pilot, he just suffers as you associate his face with his parody back catalogue and it takes you out of the film too often. Chevy Chase was never cast in Aliens for good reason. But now I want to watch that version. The ship is not the technological wonder of the Prometheus mission, its equally not the retro backstep either that explains the shoddiness of the Nostromo that will glare anachronistically in a decade’s time. The sad fact is the bulk of the Alien elements here feel like quickly assembled filler.

And what of the Prometheus elements then, brother? Equally unaligned. Midway through the film, a shipwrecked David rescues them from the protomorphs attacking them. He takes them to a sanctuary, his own Island of Doctor Moreau hidden under the ruins of an Engineer city. This is a city, we discover, he has destroyed when he arrived. The human’s artificial creation has used the Engineers death goo to wipe out his masters gods from above. Phwaor! Potent! Sadly just one brief flashback. Now he awaits the humans so he can move off planet and use the colonists (a convenient two-thousand in hypersleep and a thousand embryos in a freezer – JACKPOT!) to carry on his black goo impregnating experiments. He gets to give a psychosexual flute lesson to his updated android brother Walter (Fassbender again getting to play good guy and red herring next to himself). By the end, he has emerged as the series Hannibal Lecter; an outwardly refined, romantic God complex monster, managing to come out on top while listening to a bit of classical music. Only more interested in inseminating than eating us.

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The Engineers and Rapace’s Shaw are given short shrift. Unfortunately so, as they were equally fertile elements as Fassbender’s treacherous robo-David. I’ve already discussed how he poetically unleashed apocalypse on his creator’s creators thus writing them out of future instalments but the off hand, off screen death of Dr Elisabeth Shaw and the refocus on a poor man’s Ripley stinks. Surely a better middle section would have involved David and Shaw battling to take control of the colonists ship. Her to save them from the threats they don’t understand, him to access all that “meat”. A far more compelling potential storyline…

And by the cliffhanger we aren’t any closer to where the Nostromo and the space jockey with its cargo of eggs on LV-426 need to be. Any third prequel (if it cares enough?) needs to get movie quoting machine David’s eggs on to an Engineer’s ship and that Engineer pilot dead in his cockpit chair, burst from inside at the front and fossilised for years. And at Covenant’s end credits we are only a dozen years from when that need to be in place in the timeline. I don’t care about such little quibbles really all that much… but another film will at least be interesting if it tries to marry the two narratives up perfectly. We have various elements still in play: Dastardly David on his ship chockablock full of hosts, good Fassbender Walter might still be alive – albeit disabled- down on the surface of Paradise, the Deacon alien on LV-223 (though she must be starving), and Waterston and McBride in hypersleep (though David is unlikely to give them much of a chance of escape if his beloved Shaw couldn’t protect herself after reheading him). So there we are, an achingly average film, that just about leaves us enough intriguing paths to get to…

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Alien.

Ageless. Still a perfect adult sci-fi horror hybrid. It announced Scott as a major talent, the creature design by HR Giger recalibrated what was expected from both genres and it made Sigourney Weaver a star and somewhat incongruous action lead.

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I watched the special edition “Director’s Cut” in preparation for Covenant. And that extra scene where Skerritt is wall trapped and Brett is turning into an egg saves the whole prequel trilogy accidentally. While Cameron’s Aliens and its contribution of a queen seemingly completed a full circle life cycle that became canon… Scott’s cheeky redacted continuity crumbler helps the prequels. Prometheus both precedes the xenomorphs creation (“deacon”) yet suggests they already exist (“mural”). Covenant, Alien3 and Ressurection all have gestation periods and chestbusrter maturities that conflict and grossly contradict with the original greats’ egg-facehugger-respite-chestburster-soldier-queen-egg cycle. By including the original Alien turning poor Brett into an egg image Scott has given the franchise some wriggle room. The Alien always seemingly finds a way to reproduce whatever the ecosystem and timeframe. Maybe we might see in a future instalment the Aliens making David, their god, redundant in their development. Like Jurassic Park, life finding away. Maybe the queen will be the product of the alien’s own genetic tinkering. Maybe we might even see older clone Ripley meet the first robot boy or the Engineers themselves. Maybe, maybe, maybe…

That’s what this new trilogy of Alien movies have done that the 80s and 90s movies failed to do. Introduce some flexibility in the next paths chosen for the icon of blockbuster of cinema.

9/4/10

 

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